by Benjamin Woodard
While Iris pours herself a mug of tea, Goldie stomps into the kitchen, eyes slick like tadpoles, and makes the announcement: Mr. Dinosaur has died. She replaces the kettle on the stovetop and asks her son if he’s sure Mr. Dinosaur didn’t simply abscond to Northampton with Daddy and his just-out-of-high-school girlfriend, and the child clubs her with an expression almost-four-year-olds shouldn’t be able to make. He doesn’t have a clue what abscond means. He cannot technically answer this question. But this moment, this intellectual exchange, this first mention of death from her son’s chapped lips, reminds Iris that Goldie isn’t a baby anymore: he’s a little boy, and so he is ready to face the mortality of his imaginary friend.
Issue #116 soundtrack: Home Body "Fire"
They dig through Iris’s photo albums. In this family, she explains as she sips her Breakfast Blend, everything that dies must burn. Goldie’s eyes widen at the glossy images. A canoe engulfed in flame (“Your Uncle Billy,” Iris says). The bonfire consuming Goldie’s great-grandfather. Iris paces their exploration, but Goldie doesn’t seem scared of the rituals. He’s curious. He nods with acceptance at each display. He likes fire very, very much, and this news makes the loss of Mr. Dinosaur easier to endure. And so Iris closes her albums and they walk to her gift-wrapping station to look for a suitable container to send Mr. Dinosaur to Valhalla. Colorful rolls of paper shift, as do gift bags with used gift tags: “To Iris, with love, from Tom.” After three passes, Goldie nods at a box the size of a brick. A gingerbread man smiles on the lid, and Goldie wants to see that smile set aflame. The compact choice surprises Iris. She always presumed, with a name like Mr. Dinosaur, that her son’s friend was larger. But Goldie insists this box is the proper size, since he knows Mr. Dinosaur better than anyone. They bring his selection to Goldie’s bedroom, where Goldie crouches and slowly scoops at the empty space next to his trashcan. His pants, hand-me-downs from older cousins, bunch at his feet. His shirt is stained with grape juice. He moves deliberately, as if he’s really cradling something, and is unfazed by his mother’s gaze as he draws near the box. He lowers his hands and releases the air. He slides the gingerbread lid on top, and once satisfied, a grimace grows across his face. To be nice to Mr. Dinosaur, he says, he was trying not to fart, but he couldn’t hold it in. Iris pets his bony shoulder and reassures the boy: “I don’t think he’ll mind.”
The outside world glistens with a lacquered shine. A serenity typically imprisoned in horrible hotel room paintings. Iris and Goldie break the thin crust atop the snow, and the sound of their steps butts against tree trunks and bounces across the thin air. Iris can’t remember the last time the sun felt warm. They’re bundled: snow pants, boots, crampons, gloves, scarves, hats. Goldie can barely move under the layers. It’s pathetic and adorable. He looks like a miniature Michelin man as they inch down a slope to the edge of the solid pond, where Iris fights to free a red ice auger from its frozen shelter on the shore. She has never done one of these in the winter, so there’s a bit of improvising going on. Meanwhile, Goldie follows her instructions and scours for small sticks. Circling back, he trips and falls. The empty box soars. He crawls across the white to retrieve it. “We’re all OK,” he shouts, waving the box above his head. In response, in the distance, drunken snowmobilers rattle and whoop. They fire roman candles at each other as they zip along the frozen water.
A crow, working over a frosty squirrel, darts off before the pair gets too close: black on white, then the blue of the sky. The ice is thick and smooth, with a thin powder tickling its surface. Iris tells Goldie to find the area for the pyre. “A what?” “A fire grave.” This he sort of knows because they once read a book about gravediggers—starring puffball characters named Garbo and Gimba—after driving past the cemetery. He dawdles, and when he finally finds the right spot, he lays the box on the ice and Iris sets the auger and cranks. Her bicep burns. She jokingly asks him if he thinks there are houses under the ice. Long hallways where warriors sit with gods. She calls him “pal.” Goldie shrugs and says that he wants fire.
“Are you sad about Mr. Dinosaur?”
“Is there a reason he decided to die?”
“All the dinosaurs die, Mommy. That’s why they aren’t real anymore.”
What has made the child decide to kill off his imaginary friend? Simple, Iris thinks: love. Just the other day, while at daycare, his playmate Sissa, the daughter of accountants, told him that invisible friends weren’t allowed. That they weren’t normal. Sissa is older than Goldie by a year, and has long, blonde hair that he likes to run his fingers through during reading time. She has been to Florida and eats biscotti instead of cookies. She knows the world, and he trusts her word: Mr. Dinosaur has to go. This is the folly of youth, the ability to make rash decisions without considering consequence. Will he love Sissa forever? Of course not, yet here he is, sacrificing Mr. Dinosaur for her approval. Also, there’s a little part of Goldie that is tired of Mr. Dinosaur’s complaints since Goldie’s father carried a small suitcase out to his car and waved goodbye. Too many night of waking to Mr. Dinosaur’s tears on their shared pillow, of listening to him sob in the dark.
After a minute, the auger punctures through. A gush of blue-brown water sprouts from the hole as Iris hoists the contraption from the ice. Both she and Goldie jump back to avoid the splash. Water pools to their right, and Iris pulls a small squeeze bottle from her coat pocket and douses the box with lighter fluid. It’s probably no good for the ecosystem, but she cannot show weakness and retract her commitment to this bit of drama. What harm can a quarter cup of lighter fluid do, anyway? Besides, for a second, the dry winter air smells like July. Iris and Goldie think of bathing suits and hot dogs, and once the daydream ends, Goldie gently places his bundle of sticks over the hole. Iris squirts these with lighter fluid, too, and slides the saturated box with her foot until it rests atop the wet bridge. “Do you have any final words for Mr. Dinosaur?” Iris asks her son. The boy can’t stop thinking about fire, about this family tradition that he has been trusted with, but he does his best to remember the fact that his favorite playmate is about to be forever taken from him, mostly because of Sissa’s long yellow hair, and his attention swings enough to recount the story of the day he first met Mr. Dinosaur. The narrative is fantastical, ripe with rainbows, sharks, and toilets. “When I woke up,” he says at one point, “the sharks were dead and Mr. Dinosaur was smiling at me from the potty. He has nice teeth. He said he was my new best friend and I said OK and we played karate until you made me eat breakfast. Then we played karate some more.” He continues on, but after a few minutes, Iris spaces out and stops listening. Not on purpose, but she can only take so much of her son’s stories, especially since he discovered the wonder of bathroom humor. Eventually, though, the boy loses track of his narrative and leisurely peters out, so Iris removes her gloves, strikes a kitchen match, and drops the flame onto the box. The extra pumps of lighter fluid result in a fireball rocketing above their heads. Goldie’s eyes spark.
“Listen,” Iris says. She can feel the heat on her exposed nose as she dips deep into her memory bank. “Lo, there do I see my father. Lo, there do I see my mother and my brothers and my sisters. Lo, there do I see the line of my people back to the beginning. Lo, They do call to me. They bid me take my place among them in the halls of Valhalla, where thine enemies have been vanquished. Where the brave shall live forever. Nor shall we mourn but rejoice for those that have died the glorious death.”
Goldie has a nice listening face, and he employs it as Iris performs. He looks up at her, and then down at the fire. After she quiets, the duo watches the gingerbread man scorch and disintegrate into black flakes that fall into the water and groom the ice. They don’t say anything to each other, and Iris enjoys the silence. And after the bridge collapses into the augured hole, after there is nothing left to burn, they begin their trip back toward the shore. The drunken snowmobilers continue to fire roman candles at each other, though they are now little more than specks. Likewise, the crow has returned to tear at the frozen squirrel with its beak. Iris and Goldie reach land without incident, and she returns the auger to its shelter, where it will freeze in the next storm, assuming the coldness never leaves this town. She reaches down and takes her son’s hand. In front of them stands the house, practically looming atop the small hill. In this particular light, it looks massive, an empty Asgard waiting for its only two residents to return.
Benjamin Woodard is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine and Editor in Chief at Atlas and Alice. His recent fiction and criticism has been featured in The Georgia Review, Maudlin House, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and others. Find him online at benjaminjwoodard.com and on Twitter.
Derek Boman grew up in the muggy suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, and earned his M.A. from the Savannah College of Art and Design. Derek dotes on Bayern Munich, MMOs, ancient warfare, and his young son. He is continually intrigued through learning; out of research, for him, comes inspiration. The things he makes come from his home in Greenville, South Carolina. For more, visit the artist online at derekboman.com.
Home Body is a fever-pop duo based in western Massachusetts. Synthesist Eric Hnatow and vocalist Haley Morgan play with light, sound, and movement to create wild sonic landscapes buzzing with soul, shadow and surprise. Find them online at hellohomebody.com.